In 1995, commuters in Tokyo were deliberately exposed to a deadly gas called sarin in an act of domestic terrorism. Twelve people were killed and over a thousand injured. Me and the Cult Leader: A Modern Report on the Banality of Evil is a film by Atsushi Sakahara, a survivor of the attack, who decides to befriend a member of the cult who perpetrated it.

Sakahara meets Hiroshi Araki, a member of Aleph (previously known as Aum Shinrikyo), a doomsday cult who are still active in Japan. The unlikely duo – cult member and terrorism survivor – travel to the university they both attended and to one another’s hometowns. They skip stones and admire local scenery, all while discussing the gas attack. Sakahara, who still suffers with PTSD alongside physical after-effects of sarin exposure, has questions. His film is centred on a need for resolution. He asks Araki, ‘who did this to me? What should I do?’ His demeanour is gentle, but his challenges to the reticent Araki are probing and insightful.

The film is long and feels claustrophobic at times, with lingering close-ups on Araki’s face and conversations that are barely edited. Every moment of tension (and there are many) is emphasized. The discomfort, while hard to sit through at times, is a perfect match for Sakahara’s own experience of victimhood, and his frustration at Araki’s continued involvement with Aleph. It’s a difficult watch, but there is enough momentum and progress to keep us deeply engaged with the men’s journey of friendship and acceptance, through to a well-edited climax.

This is a moving and challenging film that showcases the importance of conversation in recovery from individual and national trauma. With deceptive simplicity, Sakahara shows the ease with which any one of us may become a victim – or a perpetrator – of a horrifying event.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Atsushi Sakahara, Hiroshi Araki

DIRECTOR: Atsushi Sakahara

WRITER: Atsushi Sakahara

SYNOPSIS: Me and the Cult Leader follows director Atsushi Sakaraha as he confronts – and befriends – a member of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, who perpetuated a terrorist attack in 1995 that Atsushi himself survived.